12 September is Saragarhi day, the anniversary of the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. It commemorates the day when a few good men withstood overwhelming odds, and forms an important chapter in British empire’s military history and Sikh history. The story is one of the eight stories on collective bravery published by UNESCO for children – the Battle of Thermopylae is another. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate it every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day.
Inspired by Paul Revere’s Ride, the poem written by H.W. Longfellow to celebrate the American patriot, I’ve composed an ode to the Battle of Saragarhi.
An Ode to the Battle of Saragarhi
Listen my friends and you shall hear,
The story of a battle in the North West Frontier,
On the twelfth of September, in ninety seven;
Few men alive have any notion
Of that famous day and year.
In the rugged mountains of Hindu Kush,
Where sparkling snows marked the boundary of Hind,
Where the Great Maharaja Ranjit Singh
Crushed the Afghans and raised two forts,
To defend his land against future ambush.
Years later, the British on their westward conquest,
Stalled repeatedly by the belligerent North West,
In a bid to finesse the Pashtun pest,
Strengthened the forts and, to a rocky ridge that lay midway,
Added ramparts and a signaling tower – thus the Saragarhi Post was arrayed.
The simmering region was volatile as the tribes of Afridis and Orakzais
Banded afresh in battle against the British.
10,000 Pashtuns attacked the signaling Post, their war cries
Rent the cold mountain air as communication they set to demolish,
Between the two forts that were Saragarhi’s prize.
Lockhart and Gulistan – the British Army’s eyes,
The forts on western Hindu Kush stood in a steadfast gaze.
Snipping the nerve that linked them thus,
Would render ineffective the British modus –
Hapless they’d be as the Post of Saragarhi failed to apprise.
Under the starry night the Pathans crept up the mountainside,
Well acquainted with its rugged self,
Like a mother knows the face of her child.
Upon the tiny Post the strapping Pathans burst
As if the mighty Hindu Kush was offloading the snow it nursed.
Nine in the morning, and time for one last signal to be sent
To Col Haughton at Fort Lockhart of the deadly ascent –
Alas, the colonel says, he’s unable to send immediate help.
In those droneless days battles were fought man to man,
21 against 10,000 – what math could make the numbers add to a plan?
Outside is the roar of whistling wind and howling cries,
Inside the Post the men determine to battle to their demise,
Perhaps they feel a shudder down their spine, Or think of their families one last time…
A few good men, a contingent of twenty one Sikhs, who in the history of wartime,
Will never again be outnumbered by a ratio so cockeyed.
Under the heavy assault a portion of the picket falls,
Led by Havildar Ishar Singh the Sikhs stay on to resist.
The Afghan leaders send emissaries and entice with surrender calls –
Rebutted, they redouble their effort and renew the assault …
Blood stains stone and snow, as the crackle of gunfire in the air persists.
Ishar Singh orders his men to fall back,
While he attempts single-handedly to stave the attack.
As the sun starts to descend, it becomes clear
He has kept the Afghans at bay but they’ve grown the crack –
Finally, face-to-face the enemies stand, to grapple and wrestle and slash and hack.
As the Sikhs start to fall, one of them still holds the fort,
A true signalman, he’s been updating Colonel Laughton all along.
As the Pathans advance, Gurmukh Singh lets off a barrage amidst cries of bole so nihal, sat sri akal –
To those who recite the name of God with a true heart, victory comes afterall.
Thus in the devastated Post of Saragarhi, resounds unbeaten his regiment’s battle call …
The Pathans set fire to the Post and turn their attention to Gulistan Fort.
But they’ve been delayed too long. Night has arrived, their plans are athwart –
For the 21 Sikhs have engaged them in battle much too long …
Time in which reinforcements have arrived to make Gulistan strong.
Which goes on to survive, as do the British, but to Saragarhi the honour does truly belong.
The gallantry of Saragarhi reached the ears of the British Queen,
Her Parliament greeted its recountal with standing ovation, as bemused members queried:
21 men battle 10,000 – who could have foreseen?
The battle of Saragarhi has passed into dusty legend, the story has begun to recede,
But it speaks to the one willing to pay heed:
In the face of overwhelming might,
The fearlessness of a few good men will do just fine.